Cochran on Bowen, 'Truman, Franco's Spain, and the Cold War'

Wayne H. Bowen
Joshua Cochran

Wayne H. Bowen. Truman, Franco's Spain, and the Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017. 208 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8262-2117-9.

Reviewed by Joshua Cochran (Michigan State University) Published on H-FedHist (September, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Francisco Franco’s Spain was the critical unresolved issue in western Europe for the US foreign policy establishment as it turned attention from one totalitarian regime (Nazi Germany) to another (the USSR) after the Second World War. Under Franco and his Falange Party, a contingent of Spanish volunteers known as División Azul served with the German army on the eastern front fighting the Soviet Union. The persistence of a fascist-inspired regime on the European continent after 1945 that had been built with the military and financial support of Nazi Germany during the Spanish Civil War led some in the United States and throughout the world to question how the United States might approach its commitment to advance a new global order based on the preservation of liberal democratic values and universal human rights. War-ravaged US allies in Western Europe, particularly the United Kingdom and France, who had expended a large cost in terms of lives, dollars, and infrastructure battling fascism over the previous six years, viewed any accommodation with Franco and his regime as a betrayal of the commitment to fully eradicate the ideology of fascism, lest it threaten the stability and security of the continent again. In contrast, others in the United States and abroad saw Spain as a potentially valuable anticommunist ally in the rising ideological confrontation that engulfed the continent. The question of what to do about Spain posed significant diplomatic and military complications for the United States and its new president, Harry Truman.

According to Wayne Bowen, further exacerbating the United States’ post-World War II approach to Spain were Truman’s personal experiences and worldviews. Bowen makes clear from the book’s outset that for both political and personal reasons, Truman disapproved of Franco and harbored suspicions of Spain. This sentiment and view, as the 1940s wore on, served as the primary obstacle to any postwar rapprochement between the two countries. With regard to Spain, Truman was guided both by ideas of Spain he had acquired in his youth during the Spanish-American War and by his time in the US Senate, when he came to understand the importance of the United States in halting the expansion of totalitarianism. These two lessons, combined with political realities in the United States and overseas, provided the basis for a slow-moving normalization that would result in a limited military and diplomatic pact in 1953 as Truman prepared to depart the White House

Bowen plots this argument in his introduction and early chapters, tracing the evolution of Truman’s worldview from his boyhood in Missouri to his unexpected elevation to the White House. For those familiar with Truman’s biography, there are few new or revealing details in these chapters about his life and political ascendance. Furthermore, Spain is often relegated to the background in this part of the story. As Bowen explains, Truman rarely thought about Spain in his youth and political career: “Truman assumed two perspectives toward Spain that would continue in his presidency: indifference and antipathy” (p. 8). Such declarations are jarring, appearing so early in the book. The first chapters focus on how Truman encountered Spain through the stories and experiences of others. As a child who voraciously read about history, and especially military campaigns, Truman learned of Spain in books, internalizing a specific vision of Old World Europe as monarchical, antidemocratic, and rife with conflict. In addition, Truman, who was fourteen years old when the Spanish-American War began, became further entranced by the stories of a close cousin, Ralph Truman, who served in the conflict. Bowen uncovers little additional evidence that Truman gave Spain, and its neutrality in the Great War, much thought while serving on the western front and traveling throughout France. In exploring Truman’s environment and upbringing, Bowen provides a clear example of how ideology functions to distill complex issues and realities into a usable, deeply embedded “shorthand,” serving as guide for national conversations, understandings, and policies, an idea pioneered by Michael H. Hunt in Ideology and US Foreign Policy (1987). Bowen’s exposition reminds readers that Cold War architects like Truman arrived at their positions with previous knowledge, assumptions, and stereotypes about the world, its people, and the United States’ role in it. For Truman and his contemporaries, this insight was gleaned at the dawn of the twentieth century and forged as the US empire took root. In the Spanish-American War, and of course more prominently in the Great War, the United States had fought to “make the world safe for democracy,” a powerful idea that resonated with the young Truman.  

The middle two chapters, which span Truman’s early presidency (1945-49), do not fully explain how these ideological assumptions about Spain translated into policy. In these four years, US attitudes toward Spain changed significantly, albeit slowly, from professing, as Bowen terms it, “no love for Franco” to accepting him as “a necessary evil.” Here, Bowen indicates how the isolation and arm’s-length approach the United States maintained with regard to Spain during and just after the war, slowly succumbed to the designs of Cold Warriors in the State Department and Department of Defense (p. 108). Statements such as, “By Spring 1947, U.S. policy toward Spain began to show inklings of a slow change” (p. 80), and “Despite the exclusion from the Marshall Plan, 1948 did see a slight softening of policy toward Spain” (p. 88), set up a narrative that pits Truman against the executive branch establishment and underscores how the responsibility for changing direction with regard to Spain came from individuals at State and Defense. Bowen retains most of the focus on Truman, illustrating his steadfastness to keep the course, even when greater exploration of policy apparatuses and other personalities might provide more illuminating context and explanation about both the shift and its stakes for the origins of the Cold War.

Perhaps the highlight of the book occurs in the last half when Bowen deftly considers how outside pressure--lobbying efforts by the Spanish government, constituencies within the Democratic Party, and other highly placed elites--influenced the question of rapprochement with the Franco regime. Franco’s intense lobbying effort began as the Second World War ended, reflecting his desire to rebuild Spain economically and rehabilitate its image within the global community. Envoys from Spain met with US political, cultural, and religious leaders in the 1940s, although they realized little immediate success in altering the course of the two countries’ relations. The largest Hispanophile segment in the United States at the time was within the US Catholic Church. Organizations like the Knights of Columbus and church leaders like Cardinal Francis Spellman met with Franco’s representatives and supported his initiatives in Spain that included the elevation of Catholicism as the state religion, as well as his staunch anticommunism, even if they may have disapproved of his methods. As Bowen notes, however, this support in some organizations, parishes, and at Catholic universities was not enough of a force to “change the trajectory of US-Hispano relations” (p. 70). With the emerging anticommunist fervor in the United States, other organizations such as the American Legion, too, joined the chorus for normalized relations with Spain.

Objecting to the treatment of Protestants, Freemasons, and other non-state-sanctioned groups in Spain, many constituencies, especially within Truman’s Democratic Party, continued to voice opposition to any effort to normalize relations with a lingering totalitarian regime. Truman understood the potentially explosive issue Franco embodied, so soon after defeating fascism. Liberals within the party, such as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and former US ambassador to Spain Claude Bowers warned Truman against normalization. Labor groups, including the CIO and the National Maritime Union, opposed Franco’s Spain and its termination of unions. Bowen’s exploration of the implications and debates over Franco’s regime beyond Washington illustrates how Americans who had experienced, understood, and come to recognize the dangers of fascism continued to think about it after 1945, making these final chapters the strongest of the book.

By 1952, US public officials, government bureaucrats, business executives, military planners, and public opinion that had turned decidedly anticommunist convinced Truman to abandon his stalwart opposition to potentially working with the Spanish government. A year earlier, Truman had appointed Stanton Griffis as US ambassador to Spain. Griffis had successfully served in the same position in Argentina, dealing with the repressive Juan and Eva Perón. Griffis’s background and ties to the US business community, Bowen notes, “sent a clear signal to the US business community that Spain was, or was soon to be, open for business” (p. 125). Furthermore, as Truman prepared to the leave the White House, he navigated the competing demands regarding the Spanish question between those who wanted the full assimilation of Spain in NATO and others who wanted to continue placing pressure on Franco, hoping for his eventual collapse. Truman reluctantly authorized a limited bilateral defense agreement with Spain. The removal of Truman’s objection, and the election of Eisenhower, who had previously urged President Truman to work more closely with Spain, marked a turning point in the two countries’ foreign relations that ultimately allowed Franco’s Spain to slowly reconnect to the international community. While Truman may not have been able to prevent any accommodation with Spain during his tenure as president, his attitudes and approach shaped the legacy of US-Spain relations over the next quarter century. The lingering suspicion and political objections meant Spain would not become a full transatlantic defense partner in NATO until 1982, seven years after Franco’s death and Spain’s restoration to a constitutional monarchy.

Bowen concludes by stating, “This story illustrates that presidents do have tremendous power in foreign policy, and can promote their personal views in potent ways over the course of their presidencies” (p. 157). While Truman and his personal dislike and distrust of Spain undoubtedly held off normalization, the eventual limited accommodation the United States reached with Franco’s Spain as the Cold War intensified raises more questions about the limits of such presidential power. Bureaucratic organizations move slowly, and changing policies can take years with or without presidential interest or edict. Beyond the implications for the Cold War presidency, the work provides an excellent departure point for students and scholars interested in exploring how Spain complicated bigger postwar initiatives such as confronting the legacy of fascism, US attitudes toward human rights in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and the construction of the Cold War transatlantic alliance.

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Citation: Joshua Cochran. Review of Bowen, Wayne H., Truman, Franco's Spain, and the Cold War. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL:

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